Ed Perkins on Travel: VFR: Do it the comfortable way

Ed Perkins on Travel: VFR: Do it the comfortable way

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Couple arriving at summer vacation rental.

VFR, the travel industry shorthand for "Visiting Friends and Relatives," will be the first big segment of the travel marketplace to recover from the shut-down. So say many of the country's top travel and airline mavens. Business travel, which tanked during the shut-down, will continue to embrace virtual meetings and return to physical travel only slowly — and maybe never to previous levels. Leisure and vacation travel will also recover, but it will concentrate on shorter trips.

Meanwhile, the emotional need to remain close to friends and relatives does not diminish, and it will push growth in travel and especially in family travel. If you accept that scenario — and I think it has a lot going for it — I suggest that you arrange a visit that maximizes comfort and minimizes stress. Yes, you could just invade your friends' or relatives' houses, and pile everyone on sofas and cots. But there's a better way: Let your hosts remain serenely in their homes and book a nearby vacation rental for you and your family. Better yet: Move everyone to a vacation rental that's big enough to accommodate the entire group comfortably — preferably in a nearby vacation destination. Even if you're just traveling on your own, family travel is a lot easier if you have room to spread out in a rental.

If you're doing a VFR trip this summer or fall, finding the right vacation rental is easy, through either of the two basic approaches:

A vacation rental platform links you to a wide range of available properties. Platforms operate like bulletin boards: Property owners list their properties, provide detailed information, photos, and maybe price lists, submit listings to the platform, which mounts the listing on its online site or sites. When you decide to rent, you screen the offerings; when you see something you like, the platform links you to the property owner to complete the detail. The platform is not a party to the transaction; it acts as a pass-through. That's why it's a bit riskier: Your deal is with a property owner, who might not be willing to help with problems or issue refunds — or even accept credit cards. The big platforms employ some protections against fraud and they accept credit cards for some rentals. But the big platforms offer by far the widest selection of rental options, especially at the budget end of the price spectrum. Two giants dominate the platform space:

• HomeAway (homeaway.com) and its affiliated acquisitions offer more than a million listings around the world. It's about to revert to the name of an older acquired platform, VRBO (vacation rental by owner, at vrbo.com).

• FlipKey (flipkey.com) lists more than 800,000 rentals worldwide.

Beyond those, dozens of other platforms offer similar services, usually in a more localized region: I have some 20 in my "bookmarks" list, which I've posted on my personal website (edontravel.com).

A vacation rental agency actually represents the properties it handles. Your deal is with the agency, not the property owner, and the agency is responsible for solving problems and handling financial arrangements. Typically, agency staff members have personally visited each property they list, so your chances of encountering a major disappointment are minimal. Rentals through agencies are generally a bit less risky than rentals through platforms, but they're also usually more expensive:

• The agency takes a cut of the rental that exceeds the fees owners pay for a platform listing:

• Agencies tend to focus on the larger and more upscale properties; if you're looking for a budget rental, agencies aren't likely to provide many options.

No single outfit dominates the agency market segment the way HomeAway and FlipKey dominate the platforms. I have almost 60 agencies in my bookmarks, also posted on my site, most of which focus on a single region: the Caribbean, Hawaii, and Europe — especially London, Paris, Provence, and Tuscany. For even more ideas, check Tripping.com, a vacation rental metasearch system.

Whichever path you choose, you'll find lots of attractive options. Give yourself and your family a break by finding the one that fits you best.

(Send e-mail to Ed Perkins at eperkins@mind.net. Also, check out Ed’s new rail travel website at www.rail-guru.com.)

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